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MUSIC

‘There’s nothing like live performance.’ Bang on a Can returns to Mass MoCA

David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe are cofounders and artistic directors of Bang on a Can.
David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe are cofounders and artistic directors of Bang on a Can.Peter Serling/Courtesy MASS MoCA

When the coronavirus pandemic brought a swift and merciless halt to live performances back in March, musical artists and organizations began a rapid, if sometimes endearingly clumsy, embrace of livestreaming technology. In one sense, it’s been a smashing success: Livestreamed and archival performances are now so ubiquitous that it’s almost impossible to keep up with the universe of online offerings.

Yet despite the inventiveness with which some artists approached the new era, none of these performances can escape the obvious basic fact that the essential aspect of a concert — its sense of unmediated contact among musicians, audience members, and sound — is absent. With concerts beginning to reemerge in Europe, many listeners are hungering for a chance to safely experience the liveness of live music again.

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Enter the intrepid new-music organization Bang on a Can, which last week announced that it would take its first step back into in-person performance. It will present two concerts (July 31 and Aug. 1) at Mass MoCA in North Adams, the longtime home of its summer institute. The performances will take place outdoors in the museum’s Courtyard D, a space more typically used for festivals such as FreshGrass and Wilco’s Solid Sound. The Bang on a Can All-Stars will perform, as will friends of the ensemble and two guest artists: clarinetist Don Byron and cellist Zoë Keating.

The import of these two events is significant, especially for new music devotees. Tickets for both performances, which went on sale July 22, quickly sold out.

The idea for the concerts emerged from a dialogue between the two organizations that began as the museum was figuring out how to restart under Phase 3 of Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening plan. “Watching the guidelines closely from the governor, we were really reimagining the ways we could present [concerts],” said Sue Killam, Mass MoCA’s director of performing arts, during a phone interview. “Simultaneously, we were talking with Bang on a Can. We have an 18-year partnership, and I think both of us were inclined to not skip a year if we didn’t have to skip a year.”

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“Everything was changing so quickly,” said Michael Gordon, one of Bang on a Can’s three artistic directors. He was speaking by phone from nearby Williamstown, where he and his wife, Julia Wolfe, another of Bang’s artistic directors, have been staying for the past few weeks. “Is the museum really going to reopen? Would people actually come up and play this show? Is it possible for an audience to safely hear live music? How would all that work? And I think in the last month we kind of put all this together and decided yeah, we’re gonna go for it.”

These will not, however, look like any performances Bang on a Can has done there in the past, most of which took place in museum galleries. The courtyard space will have 6-foot squares and 6-foot aisles mapped onto the ground, Killam said. Audience members must bring their own chairs and wear masks except when eating or drinking. The unusual configuration means that only 100 people (audience and performers combined) will be allowed into Courtyard D, a space which can normally hold around 3,900. An elaborate system of disinfecting surfaces and microphones will be in place.

Nani Agbeli, at left, led a Ghanaian drumming performance at Courtyard D during Bang on a Can's 2018 summer music festival.
Nani Agbeli, at left, led a Ghanaian drumming performance at Courtyard D during Bang on a Can's 2018 summer music festival.Phillip Parks/Courtesy MASS MoCA

A key consideration that made it possible to do the concerts was the fact that many musicians in the Bang orbit live either in the Berkshires or nearby, which meant that they could travel safely to North Adams. But in a pandemic, nothing can be taken for granted. “So we thought: Let’s touch base with all the musicians and see how they would feel about this,” Gordon said. “And every single person was like, I’m in.”

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They weren’t just willing, Wolfe interjected. “There was this kind of euphoria, [everyone] wanting to get out and play.”

Both the available personnel and the pandemic had roles in shaping the program. Unusually for a Bang on a Can program, there are a number of solo works. The two larger-ensemble pieces — Louis Andriessen’s “Workers Union” and Thurston Moore’s “Stroking Piece #1,” both to be performed Aug. 1 — are deeply embedded in the organization’s collective consciousness, minimizing the need for rehearsal. Killiam noted that Mass MoCA is “blessed with space,” so there will be plenty of room for all the musicians to remain socially distanced on the Courtyard D stage.

“It’s kind of the hard-core Bang on a Can aesthetic for the hardcore Bang on a Can fans,” quipped Gordon about the programs.

Of course, Bang on a Can is no stranger to the new online era. So far the organization has livestreamed two of its marathon concerts — six-or-so-hour affairs that featured a large number of world premieres and musicians from the world over. Both marathons were exhilarating and informal, infused with the DIY spirit that has been Bang on a Can’s calling card from the beginning. A third is planned for Aug. 16.

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“It was really incredible, just considering [that] all the scheduling and organization that would normally take a year got done so quickly,” Gordon said. “When everything closed down in March, we all got together and thought: Look, we’ve got to keep musicians playing, we’ve got to keep composers writing music, we’ve got to get this music out to people who want to hear it by the means that are available.”

Wolfe said that one refrain she’d hear from musicians who participated in the marathons was: “‘I’m really happy to have something to be nervous about’ — that kind of high that you get bringing something out to the public. Everything that was terrifying and wonderful about [performance] happened in this very strange format. I loved hearing people say that.”

Still, she added, “There’s nothing like live performance. It’s never been replaced. Even though we’ll have done these marathons online, which are really special, it doesn’t replace the other experience. You can sit home and watch a concert on Netflix and be entertained. But people still want to be there. They want to congregate — in this case, in the safest way possible — and hear something live.”

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.


David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.